By AUSTIN COLBERT
PLAINVILLE -- Entering the season, the Plainville High School boys' basketball players had little to no experience playing man-to-man defense. Then came coach Chris Drees -- who is in his first season at Plainville after six at Palco -- and learning to play man became a priority.
Only, it didn't materialize as quickly as Drees would have liked.
"Before Christmas we couldn't play man defense because we were horrible at it," Drees said. "That's a staple in my program, being able to defend and defend at a high level in a man. Coming over here I just didn't have enough time to get the man fundamentals into them before Christmas started."
The Cardinals gave up 58 points per game over their first seven contests, including one after the break. Then, after working on their man-to-man defense throughout the layoff, everything started to click and over the following nine games, the Cardinals' defense allowed only 40.1 points a game, all wins.
"Through our whole high school career, it's just seemed like we play zone and sit back," senior forward Hadley Gillum said.
'"I kind of hang out in the lane, and be lazy. And he's emphasized us to get moving ... you got to be able to match up. He's taught us to move our feet."
Combine this improved defense with a team that averages 65 points per game on the offensive end, and you have a 21-2 squad that ended the regular season ranked No. 7 in Class 2A.
Plainville skated through its first two sub-state games last week before holding off a solid Hill City team 56-49 in the sub-state championship game. The win sends the Cardinals to the Class 2A state tournament, which begins Thursday at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan.
Third-seeded Plainville will face six seed Meade (20-3) in the first round. Game time is set for 8:15 p.m.
The trip to state will be a landmark journey for Plainville, which last qualified for state in 1994, where it lost in the first round. Prior to that, the only other time Plainville has qualified for state was 1984, when it finished third.
On the other side is a Meade team that has played for the Class 2A state title the previous two seasons, losing each time.
"They are a team that's got six games in the last two years in the state tournament and that experience counts here," Drees said. "I kind of told our guys a lot would be determined in the first four minutes of the game. If we can get ourselves comfortable and acclimated to the environment and the atmosphere, I think it could be a heck of a game."
Thursday's game will feature two outstanding big men in Gillum and Meade's Morgan Davis. Davis, a 6-foot-4 senior, averages 21.5 points per game and has broken the 30-point mark twice.
Davis and Gillum happen to be close friends off the court, as they played on the same AAU team over the summer. Davis even came to Plainville over the break to practice with Gillum, long before the two knew they would ever play each other in the state playoffs.
The two are so close in fact that they have each scored exactly 495 points this season in 23 games.
Where Gillum, also a 6-foot-4 senior, has the edge on Davis is in rebounding. Davis brings in 10 boards a game, while Gillum is close to 15 a contest.
"Probably his biggest strength on this team is his offensive rebounding capabilities," Drees said of Gillum. "Because, if he gets an offensive board, he is going to score. There are not many guys in the state that are going to stop him off the offensive glass from scoring."
Drees says Gillum could average 30 points a game if needed, but hasn't had to. With a couple of kids transferring over from Palco this season, Gillum has had scoring help he didn't have prior to this year.
Junior Brent Gehring, a Palco transfer and the son of Plainville's principal, is second on the team with 11.9 points a game. Right behind him is starting point guard Logan Frederking, a senior, who brings in 9.9 ppg.
"I love it a lot more," Gillum said. "I think, honestly, bringing in more guys that can score, it opens me up. If we would not have had those guys move in, people would have just stuck on me and it would have been harder to score sometimes. They've taken a lot of pressure off me for sure."
The winner of Thursday's Plainville-Meade game will face the winner of second seed Valley Falls (22-1) and seven seed Pittsburg-St. Mary's Colgan (18-4) on Friday at 8:15 p.m. On the other side of the bracket is top seed St. John-Hudson (23-0) against eight seed Washington County (14-8) and four seed Olpe (20-3) against five seed Hillsboro (20-3).
The boys' Class 2A championship game will take place at 6:15 p.m. on Saturday.
"You can say it's kind of intimidating, but I think we will match up pretty well against them," Frederking said about playing a state-experienced Meade team. "We haven't been (to state) for 20 years and placed in 30 years, so the community is going to be behind us. I think it's pretty special."